Dominican Republic answers challenge

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Before the start of Sunday's elimination game against Panama, Dominican Republic third baseman Miguel Tejada interrupted Jose Guillen's interview with reporters with a tap on the outfielder's right shoulder.

"Jose," Tejada sternly said, "you are hitting in this group."

Guillen continued to answer questions. Moments later, Tejada, now standing by the batting cage, once again said sternly and this time authoritatively, "Jose, this is your group."

Guillen abruptly ended his interview and ran to the batting cage. By that point, the Dominicans had tired of answering questions about their monumental upset loss at the hands of the Netherlands on Saturday.

The reactions ranged from the expected ("Everything went well for them, we're fine," David Ortiz said) to panic ("It would be an embarrassment if we didn't make it out of the first round," Guillen said) to confidence ("I'm not going to say that [we were embarrassed], but we're way better than them," Jose Reyes said), to the philosophical ("Talking about lost games is like talking about lost money," manager Felipe Alou said).

Alou, in a way that only he could phrase it, merely meant that past loses can't be changed and if you continue to talk about them, you risk losing focus on the task at hand, which in this particular case was a game against Panama that could have sent the Dominicans to an embarrassing end in the World Baseball Classic.

A 9-0 thumping of Panama earned them a temporary reprieve from the demanding Dominican fan base, but that reprieve will surely be brief should they lose their next game Tuesday.

"I know that many fans went back to Santo Domingo [after Saturday's game]," Alou joked. "But I'm at least happy they got to see the game on TV. People just need to have patience."

Each passing day it becomes apparent that the 73-year-old Alou continues to have a keen wit (when asked if he would consider playing either Reyes or Hanley Ramirez at second base, Alou responded, "The Marlins just gave Ramirez $70 million. I'm not even going to go there. The Marlins say they are bankrupt. They don't have all that much money.") and a growing distaste for the WBC.

For two days, Alou has railed against the power major league teams have for keeping players out of the tournament. He's complained about how teams dictate where and how often players can play during the tournament. Sunday's target was the double-elimination format.

"It's difficult to wait three years to lose two games," he said of Panama's elimination. "If we would have lost the first two games, it wouldn't have been an accurate representation of baseball in the Dominican."

But an early elimination would certainly have caused a stir in the Dominican, where fans have been expecting nothing less than a championship, especially after the Dominican team's second-round elimination in the previous WBC. Sunday's game carried such importance that sluggers such as Ortiz and Guillen arrived at Hiram Bithorn Stadium early for extra batting practice.

Almost as soon as he entered the stadium, Alou said he saw a different sense of urgency from his players. Players celebrated in the dugout after each successive run, and even on those runs that came well after the game was in hand.

The task of keeping the Dominicans alive went to Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto, who said he did not feel one bit of pressure.

"First of all, I have never been scared," said Cueto, who pitched 4 2/3 innings for the win. "I always have the strength to pitch. I was warming up, and I felt good when I was warming up. And I said, well, I knew I was going to have a good game because I felt really good."

To qualify for the second round, the Dominicans still have to beat the loser of Monday's contest between Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. A likely win by Puerto Rico would set up a rematch between the Dominicans and the Netherlands on Tuesday. A second upset win by the Netherlands would make the Dominican's task even more difficult, because they'd have to face Puerto Rico in its home park on Tuesday.

Although Sunday's win showed the Dominicans' offensive potential, questions still abound as they continue through the tournament. Can Tejada adequately play third base? Can a platoon of Fernando Tatis and Willy Aybar at first base carry the team?
Will Ortiz's ailing shoulder rob him of his power? And just how will Alou manage to divide the playing time between Reyes and Ramirez, the two best offensive players on the team who happen to play the same position?

Even when the Dominicans continued to pour on runs against Panama, Alou sat nervously in the dugout.

"Sometimes the kids, maybe the young ones, think we've already won," Alou said. "But I've seen many things happen that are out of your hands."

It was only after Miguel Olivo's second home run of the game, a three-run shot that gave the Dominicans a 9-0 lead, when Alou began to sense the game was truly finished and that his team would not suffer the indignity of a two-game tournament stay. For several glorious seconds, Alou took gratification with the outcome. But that feeling of satisfaction did not last long because the pressure on this Dominican team is immense.

"After Olivo's second home run," Alou said, "I already started to think about Tuesday's game."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.